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Astana, Kazakhstan • 21 December 2023

How Duman Makes US Reality TV a Handshake Away from Almaty Theaters

Duman Nursila talks theaters, odd jobs that take you from one corner of Kazakhstan to another, and The Amazing Race

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Duman Nursila
Duman Nursila

What if we said there's a mildly wild combination of the Almaty theater scene, odd jobs here and there, and the profession of interpreting that could take you right to the musical production and screens of American reality TV? We have a man who lives that life, Duman Nursila. He exists on that spectrum where the job of an interpreter seamlessly crosses over into the world of theater and cinema with its indirect, haughty, and inclusive—all at once—the language of artistry.

Duman has been navigating Almaty theater world for over a decade with his semi-theater, semi-interpreter persuasion. He has worked with Deutsche Theater, ARTiSHOCK, Transforma, and many others. QazMonitor had the opportunity to sit down with Duman and explore his background as an interpreter, examining how it transforms almost every acting job he undertakes into something more.

At what point did you decide to pursue acting?

Well, I don't know. I have a friend with whom I was in KELT together—that’s KIMEP University English community theater. He said that he always wanted to be an actor. Even as a child, when he had his action toys, he would play out scenes with them. I never had such an interest when I was growing up. My dream job was to be a librarian because I love reading. I always thought that was the best job – no one disturbs you, and you can sit all day and read books.

Duman Nursila
Duman Nursila

I always liked singing, and we had a karaoke machine that I would use a lot at home. In 2010, I happened to go and see a musical performed by KELT. It was Grease, and I just loved it. I thought, 'This is something that I want to do. I want to sing on stage.' It just sounded so great, looked great, had a lot of energy…

Looking back at it, I realize that I was completely unaware of what it means to be an actor. I realized how much I didn't know, and here 'unaware incompetence became aware incompetence.’ I ended up being in the ensemble, with a bit of singing and a bit of dancing, both of which I liked dearly. Then, I was a stage manager, a backstage manager, a kind of coordinator producer. I was doing all these jobs, and I was learning without even realizing that I was learning. It so happened on one of our tours that one of the actors couldn't go to Baku with us. I was the one who knew the part, and that's when I had to step in.

It was very stressful for me, and I don't think I did a great job, I did just okay. I realized that acting is not always something that you have to have a talent for; rather it's a skill that you can develop through training on how to think [about it]. People like me might not naturally have that mindset, but we can develop it.

Duman Nursila
Duman Nursila

What helped was that my interpreting and acting started to merge. In 2014, I was hired by the British Council and the Deutsche Theater to interpret for a British director who came to work on a play. It was called iamhamlet. There, my interpreting was helping my acting, and my acting was helping my interpreting.

What was the most difficult thing about acting for you?

One of the challenging things is dealing with imposter syndrome. I would end up in a room full of actors who all have that formal education. Sometimes, I feel like they are looking down on me. I don't know if it's my imagination, and whether it actually matters or not, because if you end up somewhere, [it means] you have gone through the casting process. But during rehearsals, I would be in my head instead of thinking of the task, and I would be thinking about how am I perceived. It’s hard to focus on your acting tasks, when you’re constantly judging yourself. Another barrier was crossing from doing some things intuitively to clearly understanding what I'm doing, and I think I'm still crossing that barrier.

Duman Nursila
Duman Nursila

One thing that I learned when I had imposter syndrome: I was afraid to ask questions. If I didn't know a term, I would feel too shy to ask. Because, from the conversations, it would sound like something simple that Year One students would know, but I didn't. Now, I'm not afraid to ask questions. So, I'll always be like, 'Sorry, I didn't understand.'

When did you start to get serious about acting?

The big step was in 2018 during the Otkroveniye festival [QM. — an international festival for independent theaters held in Almaty from 2013 to 2018]. Right around that time, I began feeling like I was moving forward from the 'Oh, it’s just a hobby' stage. So, during this festival, I got invited to go see the place, and I was asked to be part of a laboratory with theater makers from abroad. It was co-directed by Tilman Hecker and Anastasia Patlay. At the end of the project, they said, ‘You should apply to The Watermill Center in America,’ which is an international artist residency led by Robert Wilson, a legendary theater director. I ended up applying for it and spent two months in America. Once I came back, I felt like I could do away with my impostor syndrome.

Duman Nursila
Duman Nursila

As you also work as an interpreter, were there any interesting experiences that you can recall?

There is a show called The Amazing Race. It's a reality show where ten people travel all over the world to win a million. They came to Kazakhstan a few years ago for the 32nd season. They approached me to be an interpreter, similar to a regular interpreting job. But I had a scheduling conflict, and that's when they asked, ‘We also have this role of an interpreter inside the show.’

They were filming at the Kazakhfilm studio, and there was a historical theme going on, involving a battle and a Khan and his interpreter This was one of the few times in my life when my interpreting and acting just fit in perfectly together. The crew handed me a piece of paper with questions the Khan would ask. The actor playing the Khan didn't speak English, so I would take this paper and read the questions to the participants, ‘How many horses were in the battle,’ and the contestants had to answer correctly. I felt a little bit famous then. (laughs)

This actually often happens to me. Sometimes I would come just as an interpreter, but I can't stay aside and be an interpreter only. I tend to get involved emotionally and psychologically. I try to help as much as I can and go that extra mile.

Duman Nursila
Duman Nursila
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